Leaving Kasese over the speedbumps, of which there are many. In my last post I mentioned that it took 8h40min to drive back from Entebbe and the hope for today is to make it in 7, going the longer but more scenic and less bumpy route.
How to describe the last few days.
Wednesday, which I wrote about before, was our time with the health center and hospital site visiting. Thursday morning we went out with the mobile clinic, and it was both hopeful and shattering at the same time. The staff set up in a church yard and inside the church—prenatal exams were inside, with women lying down on a cushion perched on two benches together and a screen around them. Outside there was a station for immunization, HIV testing, pre and post HIV test counseling, and baby weigh-in. As soon as the word got out that we were there, it seemed like every child in the neighboring area showed up. We were on the outskirts of Kasese—not too far from the clinic itself, but far enough that getting there could be a barrier.
So all of these children turned up, and we came prepared with our customary stash of lollipops and bubbles. That was entertaining for about twenty minutes before everyone started asking for extras “for my sister,” at which point we figured everyone had been well-served.
The kids were not well. There were runny noses, rashes, cuts on their feet. There were seven year olds with 18month olds on their backs. One particular (girl, I noticed when I saw she wasn’t wearing anything covering her bottom) child seemed delayed because she was the size of a robust one year old but her motor skills were that of a two year old—she could walk fine, but didn’t talk at all. She seemed to be cared for by her older sister (who was maybe on the older side of 3, also with nothing on but a T shirt).
When the bubbles ran out, we tried singing and games—I lead “head, shoulder, knees and toes” and tried Simon Says, and Amy did hopscotch and got the older kids in a circle for clapping games. [let me interject here that I’m writing as we’re driving through the Queen Elizabeth National Park and it is incredible and beautiful and we have seen a bunch of antelope already] Sitting in the shade with the smaller kids, the girl I noticed who seemed small for her age was climbing over the bench and fell off and started to cry. The older child with her looked a little concerned, but moved on so I pulled her up next to me. Some younger children we’ve met in both Tanzania and Uganda have seen us and run away, so I was mindful of not wanting to alarm her. But she was OK with me and kept crying, so I pulled her on to my lap and rocked and sang a little. She stopped crying and eventually fell asleep and I had the delicious “pinned” feeling you have when a child falls asleep in your arms and immediately weighs 500 lbs. So we sat together for about half an hour before their dad showed up—I’d been told the mom was in the village and that he was “out.” He came over to me and said motioned to her and said he was the dad, so I handed her over not a little sadly. I noticed that four kids left with him—I think the older kids were 6 and 8, maybe. Her name is Pree.
In the meantime, Amy kept up with the games and it got hotter and hotter and the kids more and more impatient with each other. Finally, technology won out; she got out her ipad and started making little movies and showing them. A few of those kids would have been in school at a different time of year; the end of school year vacation is December-January, but most would have just been with each other, with the adults off trying to make ends meet.
I want to take a moment here and talk about photography.
In a lot of places, the kids have been eager to have their pictures taken. Especially with digital cameras when you can see it right away. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to send back picutres we’ve taken and that they can get to the right people. Even at home, I wrestle with documenting vs experiencing; do I want to spend my kid’s pre-kindergarten graduation behind a camera, or do I want to actually be there? Here, my reluctance comes from a slightly different place, in not wanting to freeze things, not wanting it to become a simple, two dimensional image of abstract disaster of kids with no pants on in which all you see is the sadness. At the same time, the dirty feet and torn shirt should not be a source of shame. More shame is for those who merrily go along on our way pretending that this kind of need doesn’t exist. Of course, I am overthinking. And I’m glad somebody took a picture of me with Pree.
The afternoon after the clinic, we went along with Alex and Ann with home visits. The children’s program supports all aspects of kids’ development—and checks up on them. We visited five homes, each an example of a family category—“Discordant” couple—he HIV + and her HIV – and their children, one with an elderly caretaker, one with an HIV + mom and son, one with HIV + mom and several kids in the program, and one with a mom who was also being served through the microfinance program, which she’d opened a small shop next door to her home. The “discordant” family wasn’t home, but we heard a little of their story; they had been living in a crumbling home with four kids in one room—corrugated metal that was falling down—but owned the property, so an organization from Mississippi that BMCF has contact with funded with construction of a new home. The couple—Joseph and Mary—helped build and Joseph made the bricks so there was more collaboration. The other houses were either corrugated sheets of metal nailed together or brick, and all had dirt floors. One house we visited, with Helen (pictured with Penny, Tom, and Ann) was living with an elderly relative who was HIV +. She was unstable and disappeared for days, so Helen didn’t get enough food to eat. Ann and she said they were looking for another sponsor to pay for her to go to boarding school; she was already attending during the day, but when there was no food, it was hard for her to study so she needed an extra $450/year to cover the room and board. Tom looked at Penny and said, “How about it?” so they’ll cover her expenses until she graduates high school.
We then visited Boniface and his mom, both HIV +, who live next to a shop where she works. Her illness is not under control, though, so she can’t work very often. His cousin just came to stay with them a few months ago after her parents died, and she’s being tested this week.
BMCF supports 611 kids—that’s 611 stories just like those. More than 50% don’t live with a parent. It was a hard day, and none of us slept well. In Tanzania, people were poor, but if the margins were thin there, here it’s a razor thin line between life and death. The AIDS epidemic here has wiped out whole towns, and even though drugs now are very good, they’re very strong and it’s not easy to stay on treatment, which then creates more illness. Boniface, who is twelve, doesn’t want to take his drugs; his mom is sick, so he is losing hope. Caroline, whom we heard from the day before, also has a sister who has stopped taking her drugs; she says she’ll die anyway, so why bother.
Ann says she never loses hope. She has plenty of hard days, and said that she still thought about a girl who died in July. But they don’t lose hope. If they don’t, how can we? Still, there’s this economy of sorrow that seems so vast. We went to a life skills presentation some of the kids attended and one of the girls talked about how she was with a single HIV + mom and how they prayed all the time but her father had disappeared and didn’t support them. I asked her, what can we pray for for you? Her answer was stark: “That my mother doesn’t die.”
But these kids are creating community with each other, they’re learning about how to focus on their values, know their strength and weaknesses, try to be a leader to others. They are children and they have nothing, and they have to negotiate their relationships with school, their guardians, and, nearly always, HIV. Heartbreaking story after story, and there are so many. There is a depth to the disasater, but also a depth to the success—each individual child brings with them their siblings, their mother, their guardian. BMCF won’t reach every child in Uganda, or even in Kasese, but the ones they do reach matter a lot.
Friday, December 12
Friday, we had a “resting” day; morning in the national park. We went with Dr. Daniel and his son, Elisha, age six, who was incredibly fun and made me glad to be seeing my own kids very soon. I think he and Isaiah could wreak a lot of havoc together. Our car was a leaky minibus; not one of those cool four wheel drive vehicles that the top pops up on so you can look out the roof. Seeing an elephant cross the road in front of you is pretty magical, though, no matter what kind of vehicle you’re in. We all felt a little awkward about our comparative (and extreme) comfort vis a vis the kids who we met the day before. Also sighted: warthogs, lions (far away, but still), more elephants, antelope, water buck (related to antelopes), and some amazing birds. So now I can say I’ve been on safari. Sort of.
Finally, our last night in Kasese—we went to Dr. Daniel’s house and met his wife, Jackie, and their other 11 month old son, who used Tom’s collar as a teething ring all night. Food was delicious—all the food here has been great, thanks to Mama Stella—and at the end of the night Daniel talked about how thankful they are for our friendship and support. Jesus brought friends together and called them brothers. We are friends and brothers and sisters and will each do our work in our own place.
Our work in our own place: I’m not sure, exactly, how this will become part of my work. It has certainly deepened my sense of the challenges the world faces, but it has also given me more of a sense of what’s possible and put a face on the world that needs to be done. We stood in front of Helen’s house and Ann told us what she needed and now she—she, Helen, with a big smile and beautiful face—she is going to go to a better school now and she will decide what she wants to be when she graduates.
As we went around the circle, I said that it is a privilege it is to be part of what they’re doing, even in the smallest way. And also how there are a lot of people who do great work in the world, but that it’s been not just inspiring to be here, but a real pleasure; such smart and funny and committed people.
Now, we’re driving back to Entebbe to get our flight tomorrow. Bishop Zeb has been in Kampala all week in meetings; USAID is considering moving funds directly to local NGO’s instead of going through the government, where funds are often misappropriated, so he met with the American ambassador on Tuesday and is staying on for the service for the new archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Ah, the Anglican Church of Uganda.
We spent all our time in Tanzania centered around church, and none here. When we were at the mobile clinic the pastor came out to say hello—he lived across the way—and took me for a walk and showed me everything. Unfortunately our churches are not on the best of terms, given that the Anglican Church here has decided that the Americans are going to hell because we support the rights of GLBT people to get married and serve in the church. The pastor asked me to fund his education—people are very willing to ask for help, which is both refreshing and a little unsettling. And in this case, the answer is no. Bishop Masereka is a retired bishop, so he is free to work with Americans in ways his compatriots can—or will-not.
Sexuality came up in the life skills class as well—one of the kids said that he and many people were worried that the world was going to come to an end because of homosexuality. Tom gave a pretty good answer—culture and acceptance on all sides, that we believe that God loves gays and lesbians and ask for their respect of our beliefs. Later, he said it occurred to him that he might have mentioned polygamy, which is more accepted here than I had thought. Uganda has been in the news quite a bit lately over the “Kill the gays” bill, which was first introduced in 2009. Same gender sexual acts are already a crime in Uganda and can lead up to 14 years in prison, but the new bill establishes life imprisonment and the death penalty for “serial offenders” and acts with minors or an act committed by an HIV positive person. It also includes a raft of punishments for those who “collaborate,” which could impact teachers who don’t turn in students, health workers who treat GLBT persons, and on and on. An All Out petition making its way around the internet has taken some credit for the fact that the bill has stalled and won’t be taken up again until after the next session begins in 2013; there is a fairly scathing Ugandan response to this at the blog for Freedom and Roam Uganda (http://faruganda.wordpress.com), a Ugandan lesbian organization. In other news, the pope this week gave a blessing to Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Parliament who hoped to pass the bill in time for Christmas, when she was in Rome with other Ugandan leaders. It was the same day he went on twitter so that upstaged the coverage of the Ugandan visit. So pray for the kids we’ve met, as well as the GLBT community here.
Cultural baggage multiplies on both sides; Mama Stella said someone in the US once asked her if she lived in a tree house in the jungle, and someone else in the student Q and A (sitting next to the one who was worried about homosexuality) was curious if 63% of Americans really do worship Satan. This time of year, only Santa.